SpaceX head Elon Musk has revealed plans to utilize the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 vehicles for science missions throughout the solar system. Citing Dragon 2’s capability as a “science delivery platform”, Mr. Musk claimed the crew-capable spacecraft could also be tasked with landing scientific payloads at destinations ranging from the Moon and Mars – and even as far afield as Europa.
Dragon 2 – from Pad Abort to Solar System Adventures:
Mr. Musk, speaking after the Dragon 2 vehicle successfully conducted a Pad Abort test under the NASA Commercial Crew Program milestones, has big plans for his spacecraft.
Dragon 2 (revealed as the Dragon “V2”) is the crew variant of the cargo Dragon spacecraft that is currently enjoying numerous successful resupply runs to the International Space Station (ISS).
The first “fully operational” unmanned Dragon 2 mission, designated “SpX-DM1”, has a placeholder of December, 2016, involving a 30 day mission – most of which will be docked to the ISS – ending with a parachute assisted landing in the Pacific ocean.
This will be followed by “SpX-DM2”, a crewed flight, launching in April of 2017, on a 14 day mission.
This flight will mark the first time astronauts have launched from American soil on a US built spacecraft since Atlantis’ STS-135 mission in 2011. Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft is currently set to debut a crewed launch in July, 2017.
Both vehicles are making good progress through their final developmental path in NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract milestones, with Dragon 2’s Pad Abort test a key success towards that vehicle’s graduation to being cleared to loft NASA astronauts to the orbital outpost.
“I think (the Pad Abort test success) bodes quite well for the future of the program,” noted Mr. Musk. “I don’t want to jinx it, but this is really quite a good indication. I hope people will be excited for the upcoming flights – the high-altitude abort (In Flight Abort Test) and the unmanned flight to the Space Station and back.
“That should be really exciting for the next year and a half or so. Hopefully within two years we’ll be launch crew to and from the Space Station. It’s going to be super exciting.”
While the Pad Abort of the Dragon 2 was designed to test numerous systems, the key driver was the use of all eight of the vehicle’s SuperDraco engines.
These liquid thrusters reach maximum thrust within approximately 100 milliseconds of the ignition command, and can be throttled to control the trajectory based on real-time measurements from the vehicle’s onboard sensors.
Last week’s test showed the thrusters in action, lofting the Dragon vehicle away from the pad complex, as would be the scenario if a crewed launch was suffering from a major malfunction with the launch vehicle during the final part of the countdown.
The SuperDracos can be employed for an abort requirement throughout the ascent phase of a launch, as will be further tested via the upcoming In-Flight abort test.
“It’s the first time since the Apollo era that an American spacecraft will have a launch abort capability and moreover this will be the first spacecraft that will be able to conduct an abort all the way to orbit,” added Mr. Musk.
Because the abort system is embedded into the vehicle, as opposed to being discarded during ascent like the traditional tractor LAS, a nominal Dragon mission will allow the spacecraft to utilize the SuperDraco engines for propulsive landings.
“Dragon also has the ability to use those same engines to land propulsively, because if the propellant is not used for an abort, then it is available to be used for landings,” Mr. Musk said.
Such propulsive landings will be tested via the Dragonfly test program at SpaceX’s McGregor test site in Texas, before being promoted for use on real-life Dragon 2 missions.
Parachutes will be initially used on Dragon 2 returns and will remain onboard as an emergency backup throughout the vehicle’s crew transportation career.
The use of the SuperDracos during propulsive landings at the conclusion of missions is part of SpaceX’s reusability aspirations that are currently being tested with the Falcon 9 v1.1 first stage, with the goal of returning hardware to terra firma for reuse.
However, Mr. Musk expanded on plans to utilize the SuperDracos for use during landings on the surfaces of other planets.
Previously, comments surrounding the “Red Dragon” showed a Dragon spacecraft conducting propulsive landings on Mars. Mr. Musk has now claimed Dragon 2 has a much greater reach, thanks to the increased performance of the Falcon Heavy rocket that will soon come online.
“Dragon 2 is capable of transporting scientific payloads to anywhere in the solar system, with a liquid or solid surface, with or without an atmosphere. So Dragon is really a crew transport and science delivery platform,” he added.
“When boosted on a Falcon Heavy, Dragon can go pretty much anywhere, so we’re excited about exploring that possibility.”
Utilizing Falcon Heavy, Mr. Musk stated that Dragon will be capable of transporting two to four tons of payload to the surface of the Red Planet, with varying options for other destinations.
“With Dragon launched on a Falcon Heavy, it can go pretty much anywhere in the solar system, because that’s a heck of a big rocket,” he continued.
“Dragon, with the heat shield, parachutes and propulsive landing capability, is able to land on a planet that has higher entry heating, like Mars. It can also land on the Moon, or potentially conduct a Europa mission.
“When the destination doesn’t have an atmosphere, you can remove the parachute and the heat shield and replace that with additional propellant – so you’d have quite a lot of propellant for (propulsive) landing.”
While SpaceX’s future ambitions including an even bigger rocket and spacecraft – namely the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) system – a huge spacecraft lofted on a Raptor engine-driven Super Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (SHLV) rocket – Mr. Musk is excited by the potential missions that can be enabled by the marriage of the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 vehicles.
“I think Dragon could be quite versatile and useful in a lot of ways, for the science community and for transporting astronauts.”
(Images: via L2’s SpaceX Section, including renderings created by L2 Artist Nathan Koga – Click here for full resolution F9, F9-R, FH and BFR renderings and more – these are not official SpaceX images – MCT at the ISS is only to represent envisioned scale next to Dragon 2. Other images from SpaceX)
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